The Veteran: Kengo Kuma

November 17, 2017
Kengo Kuma

Photos: Recent Projects

Having worked in the industry for three decades, Kengo Kuma’s résumé covers a breadth of captivating work, from the tree-lined Seijo Kinoshita Hospital in Tokyo to the eco-luxury 1 Hotel Paris, where the firm is embarking on an ambitious project slated for 2022 that turns the repetitive wood and metal-clad volumes into the green lung of the neighborhood, creating a façade that shifts with the changing light.

Founded in 1990, Kengo Kuma and Associates now has offices in Tokyo, Paris, Beijing, and Shanghai, employing roughly 225 people—all of whom follow the designer’s philosophy to embrace a location’s essence. This is due in part to Kuma’s own upbringing in Tokyo. “I was born in 1954, and at the time, Tokyo was a city of mostly one or two-story buildings. It was such a quiet, beautiful environment. I could establish my aesthetics,” he explains. “After that, Tokyo was very much destroyed by concrete buildings. My dream is to go back to [a time] before that destruction by using natural materials.”

Take the Odunpazari Modern Art Museum in Eskisehir, a city in the Central Anatolia Region of Turkey with traditional Ottoman wood houses along “a beautiful street that was like a dream, like in the movies,” which influenced the firm’s design (led by partner in charge Yuki Ikeguchi), and where they plan to reconstruct that street by using stacked and interlocked timber for the museum’s 2019 debut. “Our building is contemporary, but the method of using wood—the scale, the textures—is very similar to the old buildings,” he says. “We tried to create some kind of harmony by using the common material of the space.”

Recently, Six Senses has called on Kuma’s firm to take charge of two projects, where he is again balancing architecture with nature. One, the 75-key Six Senses Yangshuo in China, located in a fishing village along the Yulong River with views of the Karst hills, is inspired by “the beautiful mountains,” he says, with the heritage building acting as the “protagonist of the project.” The other, the 69-room Six Senses Zhiben Hot Springs in Taiwan, is informed by the area’s unique topography at the base of Medicine Mountain, which Kuma merges with a driftwood exterior to “pick up the spirit of the place.”

But he still occasionally finds time for product design, which he says “can be a good means to express the essence of the architect’s philosophy.” A recent collaboration with Czech lighting manufacturer Lasvit on the Yakisugi lighting collection recalls the Japanese technique of shou sugi ban (or yakisugi), where wood is charred along its surface. To craft the crackled pendants, molten glass is used to char the wood, leaving a permanent imprint of its texture on the glass surface, making each handblown piece distinctly Kuma. “My intention was to plumb the depth of the wooden soul captured inside the glass,” he explains. “I always try to highlight what is behind the material.”

For Kuma, his architectural dreams that started when he watched the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo have come full circle: His firm, working as part of a JV with various design and construction firms including Taisei Corporation and Azusa Sekkei, is crafting the city’s new wooden lattice-wrapped National Stadium, which will play host for the 2020 Olympic Games. It was then, when he was 10, that he was first “struck by the powerful beauty of the Yoyogi National Gymnasium designed by Kenzo Tange and I got to know the profession called architect.” From that moment, he says, “I wanted to be one myself.”

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